Nursing is a funny old muffin. It’s spent 20-odd years turning itself into a profession, edging along the park bench of jobs towards the doctors and the teachers, and away from the oddly dressed vocations like the performance artist or nun. Yet somehow it never fully arrives, does it?
Changes have seen the abandonment of hats and the embracing of degrees. We now have career paths, grading systems, specialists, consultants and professors. And yet, sometimes old habits pop up. Maybe some nurses still find certain things harder to do than their professional brothers and sisters.
One of the obvious ones is striking. Another is to fully and vocally engage in the politics of the health service. And a third is the criticism of patients.
Of course, I don’t mean individual patients; I’m not suggesting the modern nurse might welcome a new admission with the words, “let’s get you out of those clothes, Mrs Smith, after all, they are horrible. Leave your hat on - if I had hair like that, I would.” I mean more of a cultural critique, if you like, referring to the insatiable hordes.
It seems there are two elements to the ongoing crisis affecting our overflowing accident and emergency departments. On the one hand, it reflects a systematic long-term disinvestment. I know economic fetishists say that this is because we can’t afford to fund healthcare any more, but they are ninnies. We remain a wealthy nation - we just choose to organise ourselves in a way in which our wealth is collected by very rich people rather than by tax collectors.
So it is remiss to talk about strain on services without commenting on the lack of investment - both financial and moral; knowingly putting stress on nurses and doctors is a moral choice by politicians.
However, there is another element to A&E departments being overrun, which has something to do with people using them when they don’t really need to. People turn up because they want antibiotics, or a hug, or because they have just split up with their boyfriend or can’t find Nando’s. People who, for some reason, want rather than require immediate medical attention and think that it is okay.
This reveals an interesting paradox, doesn’t it? We have a popular body politic that considers taxation to be a bad thing, but an accompanying culture that imagines whatever resources are available are limitless when applied to “me”. We are, in effect, saying “I won’t pay extra tax to fund the NHS but I will use whatever services I fancy when I want, because that is my ‘right’”.
I wonder how we constructed that sensibility, or what emotions underpin it. Given that we have established that you are all too nice to wonder, I will go out on a limb here - I think it is quite aggressive and it might constitute something rageful: assaulting the NHS. I also think - and I realise this is not an emotion and I really hate using this word - it is stupidity. At the very least, we have failed to educate patients in how to value and use a communal resource, and I don’t think nurses feel able to say that.
I also suspect it might have something to do with how we perceive our “rights”. We seem to talk about our rights a lot these days. What we don’t talk about so much is other people’s rights.
I think the way we value and treat our public services shows us our collective character. I worry that that character is cross, self-absorbed and poorly. That’s no way to be, is it?